A Different Color

The mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicas) is an odd creature, brightly coloured as a 1970s psychedelic pantsuit, that sees the world in a different way from all other creatures.

Its two satellite-like eyes, which can move independently of one another, have twelve colour receptors, far more than the human eye.

Mantis shrimp eyes. Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Mantis shrimp eyes.
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

One might assume that it sees a far wider range of colours. But according to a new study out in Science, it’s not so much that the mantis shrimp sees more colour, because it doesn’t. Colour seems to work on the mantis shrimp in a completely alternative manner. More, perhaps, like sound or temperature for us.

In fact, the mantis shrimp’s visual perception is so different from our own that it’s hard to even conceptualise the reality in which it lives from the point of view of the shrimp itself.

Trying to imagine our surroundings from an utterly unique and alternate perspective isn’t merely an intriguing thought exercise – it can bring the world as we perceive it into clearer focus.

Speaking of different perspectives: Over the weekend I had the good fortune to attend a talk given by the current mayor of Iceland’s Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr. A humorist and artist, Jón Gnarr came into office at the head of the Best Party, which he describes as less of an actual political party and more of an ‘anarcho-surrealist art project’ using politics as a medium.

Juvenile mantis shrimp Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Juvenile mantis shrimp
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

According to Gnarr, he and his associates are only ‘anarchists’ in the sense that they think there’s no one ‘right’ political party or ideology – there are only solutions for challenges or questions, and the way to deal with them is to take each one as they come up, on their own merits.

Gnarr said he sees the art project as an boundary-crossing intervention in a political system that, following the 2008 financial collapse in Iceland, was mired in recriminations and political volatility. With a term now running into its fourth year, he’s been in office longer than his three predecessors combined.

According to him, it seems to be working – the parties are communicating, the system has stabilised, the economy is gaining traction.

Will he run again? Absolutely not: he is firm in remaining an ‘amateur politician’. Were he to run again, he’d be a professional, and thus only able to work inside the system.

I had the feeling that the world looks very different for Gnarr than it does for most people, especially most politicians.

Not that I’m saying he’s anything like the odd mantis shrimp, but having the chance to glimpse the world through Gnarr’s eyes for an evening was an enlightening peek into a different reality being played out against the backdrop of the familiar, and a look that might change expected outcomes.

Almost like feeling the vibrations of color rather than seeing different hues.

Eye of the mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicus). Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Eye of the mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus japonicus).
Photo: Roy L. Caldwell via LiveScience

Wall of Sound

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) Image via: 123rf.com

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Image via: 123rf.com
Listen to a blackbird sing here.

It started raining today after a few days of sun, and the birds outside in the garden are berserk with spring joy. There’s a symphony of birdsong that I can hear even through shut windows. The chorus changes, rises, falls, and is (rarely) silent for just a moment, as if all the birds are catching their breath at an agreed pause in the music.

The calming effect of birdsong has always been known. In our technological age,the effect we could usually only get by being outside, or having a window open where birds are singing, is being implemented in a variety of ways. Our human predisposition, won over the millennia, is to assume that when birds are singing, we are safe – it’s only when they all stop singing that we need to be concerned. Birdsong heralds the dawn, when birds slowly fall silent in the evening it is time to rest.

I noticed when flying through a few airports recently – in the UK and in the United States – that birdsong filled some of the corridors upon arrival. I thought it was a funny but oddly pleasant choice of background noise, but as it turns out it was calculated and intentional. Researchers and marketers are figuring out how to implement birdsong soundscapes to do everything from calm frazzled travellers, raise office productivity, relax patients in doctors’ offices and improve sales.

Some birds, like songbirds and parrots, are able to alter and modify their vocalizations, learn new tunes. According to Erich Jarvis, a researcher in neurobiology at Duke University, “Vocal learners all have a connection, or pathway, between neurons in the forebrain — a brain region that helps control vocal learning — and neurons in the brainstem, which control the muscles involved in producing innate vocalizations.” These birds share this type of pathway with a few mammals, including humans.

I’m not sure what this means for our ability to communicate directly with our avian friends.

I’ve been told, however, that a friend’s cockatoo once landed on his knee, set her eyes on him beadily, and said, “I can talk.” “Yes, you can talk,” responded my friend. The bird clucked, then went on, “I can talk. Can you fly?”

Just in case you haven’t heard it in a while, you can test the effects of birdsong for yourself. Here’s an good hour of the stuff. The video has a nice discussion of the difference between bird calls and birdsong.


Jarvis Lab – Neurobiology of Vocal Communication

BrainFacts.org article – Connecting Birdsong to Human Speech by Mary Bates

BBC article – The surprising uses for birdsong by Denise Winterman

Wonderful site of birdsong from around the world – xeno-canto.org